Is breakfast the most important meal of the day or not? There are are many conflicting beliefs on this topic. So I delved into some research to figure out what the optimal answer might be.
First, what is breakfast? It’s the first meal consumed of the day and literally means “to break your fast” – the fast being the time since your last meal from the previous day.
Some studies showed that when people ate breakfast compared to those who skipped breakfast, there were associations with better memory and cognitive function, more balanced weight, better appetite control, and better control over blood sugar, insulin, and other metabolic hormones (1,2,3).
Some studies have indicated that skipping breakfast can be associated with an increased probability of developing atherosclerosis, which is a risk factor for heart disease (4), as well as associations with weight gain, overeating, poorer control over appetite and cravings throughout the rest of the day, as well as an inflexible metabolism (1,5,6,7).
Intermittent fasting is a popular trend these days, with many people choosing to skip breakfast and only eat one meal or two meals a day, usually later in the day. However, many experts including Dr. Jason Fung have said that it is better to have an earlier time-restricted eating window if you are going to choose intermittent fasting, and instead of skipping breakfast, eat an earlier supper or skip supper instead (13).
Dr. Fung himself, however, admits that even though this is the optimal arrangement to ensure the best management of metabolic hormones, it’s not always feasible with family eating schedules. From what I have seen of the research, it might be a good idea to try to consume your first meal within 2 hours of eating and try to eat your last meal earlier in the evening.
What we eat for breakfast also has a huge impact on all of the above factors and more. Studies have found that breakfasts that contain sugary foods and foods with highly refined flours that enter the bloodstream quickly have the worst effects on glucose and insulin responses, versus breakfasts that are lower on the glycemic index (8,9).
Going further, a breakfast high in protein had the best results in terms of better-balanced blood sugar and insulin responses, as well as better-controlled appetite, and less tendency towards evening snacking. Improved satiety or fullness lasted the whole morning, and reduced cravings and better hormonal control lasted for 24 hours after the high protein breakfast (10, 11). That’s huge!
So what did a high protein breakfast look like in terms of quantity of protein? High protein was considered to be 30 to 40 grams of protein, a “normal” protein breakfast was considered to be around 15 grams, and a low protein breakfast was 10 grams of protein or less.
What does that look like?
A bowl of oatmeal has around 6 grams of protein. 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter about 12 grams of protein. A large egg has 6 grams of protein. Not much protein, is it?
So what are things that could equate to higher amounts of protein? A 3-ounce piece of meat (about the size of the palm of your hand) has on average 21 grams of protein depending on the type of meat. So if you pair a 3-ounce steak with 2 eggs, you have a breakfast with 34 grams of protein.
One cup of Greek yogurt has 18 to 20 grams of protein, and if you add 3 tablespoons of hemp hearts, that will provide an additional 10 grams of protein.
Keep in mind that flavoured yogurt typically has huge amounts of added sugar. Therefore, it is optimal to purchase unsweetened natural yogurt and add your own lower-sugar flavours, like vanilla extract, cinnamon, and berries.
These are just a couple of examples. Breakfasts can range in variety, depending on cultures and tastes, but one thing to keep in mind is that the traditional North American belief that breakfast needs to either be sweet, cereal & toast based, or contain eggs are not true. You can eat whatever you want for breakfast!
For example, I often eat leftovers. Meat and vegetables heated up quickly in a pan. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare, which is the same as it would take to prepare toast in the morning. Many look at me funny when I tell them this, but it really doesn’t have to be a strange concept to eat things like this for breakfast!
As well, keep in mind that drinking your breakfast, for example, a protein smoothie, doesn’t have the same satiating benefits as eating and chewing your food (12). Protein in solid form that needs to be chewed will deliver the most satisfying benefits in terms of fullness that will last the longest period of time.
So there you have it. This is just a small taste of the research that I have delved into when it comes to breakfast. However, these points that I have mentioned have provided dramatic positive changes for the people I know who have implemented them. Most people say that they experience more energy and mental clarity, and less hunger and cravings. Just by changing one meal!
If you want to learn more about the research I uncovered about breakfast, the history of breakfast over the centuries and why we are so stuck on commercial cereal in our modern North American culture, and what you can do step-by-step to improve your breakfast, please check out the 2-hour presentation I created on the topic here It goes into great detail about all of this and provides some very helpful suggestions.
If you would like some breakfast recipe suggestions, sign up below to receive my free new recipe ebook called Protein-Packed Breakfast recipes: Protein-filled, vitamin-rich recipes to help improve hormone balance for the rest of your day.
- Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:677–88. Beneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, “breakfast skipping,” late-adolescent girls Heather J Leidy, Laura C Ortinau, Steve M Douglas, and Heather A Hoertel )
- Obesity (Silver Spring). 2015 Sep;23(9):1761-4. doi: 10.1002/oby.21185. Epub 2015 Aug 4. A high-protein breakfast prevents body fat gain, through reductions in daily intake and hunger, in “Breakfast skipping” adolescents. Leidy HJ1, Hoertel HA1, Douglas SM1, Higgins KA2, Shafer RS1.
- J Am Dietetic Assoc. 2005 May:105(5):743-760. Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight, and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents. Gail C.RampersaudMS, RDMark A.PereiraPhDBeverly L.GirardMBA, MS, RDJudiAdamsMS, RDJordan D.MetzlMD.
- Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Oct 10;70(15):1833-1842. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.08.027. The Importance of Breakfast in Atherosclerosis Disease: Insights From the PESA Study. Uzhova I1, Fuster V2, Fernández-Ortiz A3, Ordovás JM4, Sanz J5, Fernández-Friera L6, López-Melgar B7, Mendiguren JM8, Ibáñez B9, Bueno H10, Peñalvo JL11.
- Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 July ; 34(7): 1125–1133. doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.3. The addition of a protein-rich breakfast and its effects on acute appetite control and food intake in ‘breakfast-skipping’ adolescents . HJ Leidy and EM Racki.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Jun;105(6):1351-1361. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.151332. Epub 2017 May 10. Impact of breakfast skipping compared with dinner skipping on regulation of energy balance and metabolic risk. Nas A1, Mirza N2, Hägele F1, Kahlhöfer J1, Keller J1, Rising R3, Kufer TA2, Bosy-Westphal A4.
- Diabetes Care. 2015 Oct;38(10):1820-6. doi: 10.2337/dc15-0761. Epub 2015 Jul 28 Fasting until noon triggers increased postprandial hyperglycemia and impaired insulin response after lunch and dinner in individuals with type 2 diabetes: a randomized clinical trial. Jakubowicz D1, Wainstein J2, Ahren B3, Landau Z2, Bar-Dayan Y2, Froy O4.
- J Nutr. 2015 Apr;145(4):736-41. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.195339. Epub 2015 Feb 11.A high-glycemic index, low-fiber breakfast affects the postprandial plasma glucose, insulin, and ghrelin responses of patients with type 2 diabetes in a randomized clinical trial. Silva FM1, Kramer CK1, Crispim D1, Azevedo MJ2.
- J Nutr. 2015 Apr;145(4):736-41. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.195339. Epub 2015 Feb 11. A high-glycemic index, low-fiber breakfast affects the postprandial plasma glucose, insulin, and ghrelin responses of patients with type 2 diabetes in a randomized clinical trial. Silva FM1, Kramer CK1, Crispim D1, Azevedo MJ2.
- J Nutr. 2015 Mar;145(3):452-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.202549. Epub 2014 Dec 24. A high-protein breakfast induces greater insulin and glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide responses to a subsequent lunch meal in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Park YM1, Heden TD1, Liu Y1, Nyhoff LM1, Thyfault JP2, Leidy HJ1, Kanaley JA3.
- Nutr J. 2015 Feb 10;14:17. doi: 10.1186/s12937-015-0002-7. A randomized, controlled, crossover trial to assess the acute appetitive and metabolic effects of sausage and egg-based convenience breakfast meals in overweight premenopausal women. Rains TM1,2, Leidy HJ3, Sanoshy KD4, Lawless AL5, Maki KC6,7.
- Br J Nutr. 2011 Jul;106(1):37-41. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511000122. Epub 2011 Feb 15. A protein-rich beverage consumed as a breakfast meal leads to weaker appetitive and dietary responses v. a protein-rich solid breakfast meal in adolescents. Leidy HJ1, Bales-Voelker LI, Harris CT.
- Fung, J. How to eat: Fast and break-fast. https://idmprogram.com/eat-fast-break-fast/